Tips to Consider on a For-Profit to Nonprofit Job Transition

June 18, 2012; Source: U.S. News & World Report

Alison Green has identified eight excellent rules for people considering switching from employment in the for-profit world to working for a nonprofit. Most, if not all, of these rules will be instantly recognizable to seasoned nonprofit professionals. Her rules include: pay at nonprofits may or may not be as good as with for-profits; for nonprofits, passion matters, but is no substitute for competence, accountability, and accomplishment; and because some nonprofit positions are grant-dependent, it’s important to know in advance whether there’s a time clock on the budget for the position you’re considering.

Her list assumes one is considering seeking employment in a charitable organization instead of a trade association, private club, or the 25 or so other types of nonprofits recognized by the IRS. This isn’t a bad assumption, given the number of charities and the number of people charities employ.

She also assumes that the charities the job-seeker is considering are small or mid-sized human service or social service organizations. It’s important to remember that many universities, hospitals, and other nonprofits are multi-billion dollar organizations with thousands of employees with operations in several states or even nationwide. Moving from for-profit to nonprofit doesn’t necessarily mean moving from a larger employer to smaller one.

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One trend we’ve seen that was not addressed in the article is that of the successful sales executive seeking meaning in their life by joining a nonprofit as a development director or development officer. While some aspects of fund development resemble sales, there are subtle yet profound differences in ethics, communication, and perspective that cause many career-changers, and their nonprofits, significant heartburn.

One rule to add to the list is to consider volunteering for a few nonprofits before seeking employment with any nonprofit. Those considering moving to the nonprofit sector should take the opportunity to learn about nonprofit practices and culture up close and personal before making the leap. –Michael Wyland


Michael Wyland

Michael L. Wyland, CSL, has more than thirty years of experience in corporate and government public policy, management, and administration. An expert on nonprofit governance and public policy issues, he has been featured and quoted extensively in media including The Wall Street Journal, The New York Times, CNN, Fox News, Washington Post, The Chronicle of Philanthropy, and The Nonprofit Quarterly. He currently serves as an editorial advisory board member and contributor to The Nonprofit Quarterly, with more than 100 articles published since 2012. Michael is a partner in the consulting firm of Sumption & Wyland. Founded in 1990, the firm provides board governance consulting, public speaking and training, and executive coaching to nonprofit organizations. Sumption & Wyland has assisted more than 200 nonprofits with strategic planning services from pre-retreat research to staff-level implementation assistance and effectiveness monitoring. Speaking topics include board-CEO partnerships, nonprofit executive transition issues, and overviews of the nonprofit sector of the US economy. Michael was born in Washington, DC and raised in the Northern Virginia suburbs. Prior to co-founding Sumption & Wyland, Michael managed the computer operations for an independent oil & gas investor in Dallas, Texas and served as a staff assistant to a U.S. Representative. During his college years, he spent one summer working at the US Department of Labor and one summer working at the US Department of Justice. His past volunteer service includes various leadership positions at the local, state, and national level with the Young Republicans. He has been the secretary and president of a condominium homeowners association and the treasurer of a professional association serving computing professionals. He served as a Trustee and Vice President of Sertoma Foundation, and has been elected president of his local Sertoma club twice. In 2014, Michael was elected Chair of the South Dakota Commission for National and Community Service (Serve SD), on which he has served since its founding in 2011. He is currently working as a senior advisor to establish a national charity dedicated to the elimination of prejudice, expanding the scope and reach of the 120-year old Pi Lamba Phi fraternal organization. Michael's writing for NPQ often addresses healthcare policy and governance, scandals involving nonprofits, and the governance and policy implications of nonprofit stories in the news. He was widely quoted and cited for his work analyzing the governance issues related to the Jerry Sandusky/Penn State/Second Mile scandal in 2011. More recently, he has written more than 30 pieces for NPQ relating to the IRS scandal. In addition, he presented a paper at the national 2014 ARNOVA Conference about the IRS scandal and its implications for regulation of political activity by nonprofit organizations. Michael lives in Sioux Falls, SD with his wife, Margaret Sumption, and their dog. They have one adult son. In his leisure time, he likes to read histories and biographies, play golf, cook, and be a companion to his wife.

  • Sue

    I had the privilege of working for a regional non-profit that had a “warm” mission and lots of notoriety. We ended up with a lot of for-profit “volunteers” who were looking to pad their resume for a shift into non-profit or government. The biggest thing to consider:: Please check your attitude at the door! A lot of mid-career high profile people often come in expecting to be given strategy projects and treated with the same level of respect and authority that they earned in their last corporate job. It just doesn’t work like that. Instead you will be handed boxes of envelops to stuff and stamp, a list of phone numbers to call and thank for donations, a spot at the receptions desk to cover the college intern when she goes to lunch, or business cards that needed to be entered in the database. Add to that having to take direction from a 23yrs old, it’s a tough pill to swallow and not everyone can do it. Please come in with a humble disposition.

    Non-profit is like any other career path, people go to school to study specific aspects of non-profit. The principles it takes to run a non-profit are not the same as running a business. Don’t assume that you have the ‘keys’ to success. I watched a former VP of a fortune 500 company step into the role of grant manager and had the pants beaten off of him by our 22year old counterpart –she brought in more money than he did and grant-makers requested to work with her (over him) to handle their relationship management. I watched a “CFO” who was a former CFO to a large credit card company become flustered the first time he had a meeting with a Government rep and his financial reports were not up to snuff. He tried to b.s. his way though the meeting and the rep threatened to go after him for fraud for deceiving the federal government. Not to mention I’ve watched countless “sales reps” come and go as development officers.

    Long story short – this is a well developed industry with a lot of regulations, rules, and watchdogs. If you choose to take the leap into this career it should be because its your calling (like a minister, teacher, or firefighter) – not because you want to feel good about yourself and think the industry or specific organization needs ‘rescuing’. It is a very rewarding career, but its super stressful, low-paying, and mostly administration and fundraising.

  • LM

    Can you recommend training options – conferences, seminars, etc. – for learning to work for a non-profit basically from the ground up? We have a board in place and they are being trained by a professional which helps, but what is needed is training for donor contact and retention, fundraising, etc. Thanks!

  • Luce

    Yes, it does take a humble disposition. In the past I have enjoyed top performance rewards in sales which came with personal satisfaction as well as peer support. In the non-profit sector, you have to have the passion for your movement and yet if you are the one person in a room full of volunteers that is getting a pay check, your passion may never “measure up.” An underlying feeling can exist that you really are not needed; the volunteers could got it fine without you and too much of the fundraising is just going into your pocket. THEY are volunteering, you are working. It can make for strange sentiments… at least ones that can not be fulfilling.

  • Paulina Michaud

    Excellent article. Thanks!
    I am in the process of moving from for profit to non profit. Do you know where can I find more information of this kind?


  • Paulina

    Hi Sue,

    Thanks for your comment. I have worked in for profit where you see this and worse from the bottom up… It is sad and discouraging.

    Sue, I am thinking of switching to nonprofit. I currently volunteer as a Prison Ministry, which I truly love. This the only volunteer work I have done consistently during three years. That, added to my experience in a previous company strongly motivated me to make the change.
    I have a degree in Marketing and Communications, I am a photographer and have also art capabilities. I am doing my research because I want to find out whether this would be a field that fits the nonprofit organizations.

    Is there any place, website, company to call, people I can talk, so I can find out more about the culture, possibilities, etc?
    I am located in Philadelphia.

  • Michael Wyland

    Thanks for the great comments!

    I’m reminded of my friend who approached a local nonprofit and offered to volunteer. They weren’t used to volunteers, and explained that they serve people with mental health issues, were concerned about confidentiality issues, and relied on certified professionals for direct service.

    He then clarified his offer. He was an experienced computer programmer and systems analyst, and he had heard that the nonprofit’s computer systems were similar to those of the company he worked for. He had also heard that the nonprofit was having problems with their computer administration. He was offering technology expertise, not program service assistance.

    The nonprofit ended up having my friend volunteer for several months to assist in a complete upgrade and revamping of the nonprofit’s computers and information systems.

    Part of volunteer management is managing expectations of volunteers and knowing how volunteers may be used to best further the nonprofit’s mission. However, sometimes a volunteer can surprise you by presenting themselves and their talents in a way that had never occurred to the volunteer manager, allowing the nonprofit to address a need or gap that they may have never associated with volunteer efforts.

  • Jackie

    Where is the article? I’m seeing only comments.

  • Ken

    I have also had the pleasure of working for a non-profit by chance after losing my corporate job as a designer and I must say that it is definitely a humbling experience. I can agree with all of the comments posted. There is a ton of stress with lots of regulations that provides very little to moderate income. At my particular agency there are no raises or bonuses, because our monies are provided by grants. Grants are not concerned about stuffing your pockets to make you rich, rather they are more concerned about numbers and statistics according to the target market that you must affect and serve. Nonetheless, in the midst of all that, there is a great fulfillment in helping people and making an extraordinary difference in the world. Interested folks should definitely volunteer first and check their ego at the door.